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Torah Commentary
Pinchas (July 14, 2012)

Prince H. Davis, Administrative Assistant

THIS IS THE third consecutive year that I have had the pleasure to write a commentary for Parashat Pinchas. There are so many interesting things in it, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll stick to one topic.

Strangely, the Torah seems to have “omitted” a straightforward but essential halachah. We are told the detailed laws of inheritance except for what happens to the property of a deceased man who leaves no sons but does leave daughters. The daughters of Zelophehad are such a case in our parashah.

The daughters reasoned that although the Torah does not specify their rights to inheritance, this certainly should be part of the law. According to Midrash Tanchuma, the daughters brought their argument to the lower courts of the nation, and while the judges agreed with the women, they instead referred the case to a higher court out of respect for a law that as yet had no precedent or code and would need to be innovated. The higher court in turn referred it up for the same reason, until it was referred to Moses himself. Shockingly, Moses’ mind went blank, and while the case should have been “cut-and-dried,” he needed to refer it to God. God upholds the logic of the Zelophehad daughters, and the Talmud in Sanhedrin 8a records Moses’ intellectual “lapse” for posterity.

What was so wrong with Moses advising the judges to bring difficult matters to him? Interestingly, Moses did not say, “If you encounter difficulty, then bring it to me.” He assumed they would encounter difficulty and instructed them to bring those inevitable difficulties to him. Moses assumed that other judges, who did not have the privilege of studying the Torah from God Himself, surely would not have had the same level of knowledge needed to make halachic decisions. And herein lay his error: No one has absolute halachic knowledge, not even he. Absolute knowledge cannot, therefore, be a prerequisite for competent halachic decision making. It is this leeway that gives a rabbi the right to make decisions in Jewish law. This is true even if there are other rabbis whose knowledge is far superior. Perfect knowledge is not a requirement, but one must display competence, have yirat shamayim (God fearing) and have intellectual courage.

We all make decisions regarding our own lives, and we feel humbled and overwhelmed by the enormity of the decisions and their implications. In these situations it helps to be mindful that we cannot have perfect knowledge. We will err as even Moses sometimes did. We will not be accountable for what we did not and could not have known. All we can do is our best and make decisions with as much information as we can, with God’s help and with a great deal of personal courage.


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